Where was Jewish Leadership?
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has finally concluded its traumatic, heart-wrenching inquiry.
In February 2015 I came to observe Case Study 22 of the Royal Commission expecting to see the Jewish community leadership.
Over five years, the Commission held over 8,000 private sessions and 57 public hearings, received evidence from 1,200 witnesses and made 2,5000 referrals to authorities. Case Study 22 focused on the institutions of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshivah Bondi. These were among the few organisations called back and subjected to further review. Others included state governments, Anglican Church and Catholic Church authorities.
I had anticipated the presence of communal leadership as constant witnesses at Case Study 22, to support the victims of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community and bear witness to their pain and suffering. Surely they would want to comprehend this blight across our community, to acknowledge past history and tragically, ongoing practices. The gallery however, was generally close to empty and remained that way till the end of the Case Study.
Three years have passed since that day. Last week I attended the Final Session of the Royal Commission.
The room was packed. Peoples’ voices and emotions resonated with acknowledgement of the enormity of the task the Royal Commission had undertaken, together with its achievements. They were all there. Victims who had come in pain had seen the curtains peeled back leaving horrific secrets exposed. Organisations from across Australia were there to accept the harsh truths that had needed to be told. Religious leaders, whose institutions had been savaged by the Commission were there to mark the delivery of the Final Report and its blueprint for the future.
As I looked around the overflowing room at the Prime Minister, other politicians, indigenous leaders, survivors, advocates, workers and champions of the Commission I was stunned not to see anybody from my own Victorian Jewish leadership.
None of the communal institutions. None of the roof bodies. Not a Rabbi to be seen.
Leadership requires many characteristics, not the least of which is presence.
To be a community leader, you have to be there. You have to be seen. You have to be heard. You have to be in the room when the moment calls. You have to recognise that moment of shared change in society. You need to shoulder the burden of all and be present for those both outside and within your community.
Six months ago, ECAJ President Anton Block provided an apology to the Jewish child victims of sexual abuse on behalf of the Jewish leadership. He acknowledged it’s past failures and absence. So where were all those who call themselves leaders now? I am angered by their absence. We should all be.
If nothing else, the victims who have had the courage to bare their souls and those who have suffered in silence were entitled to the respect and presence of their Jewish community leadership last week. In this, they were profoundly let down. The Royal Commission marks the end of the first chapter.
It represents only the beginning of addressing matters relevant to child sexual abuse redress for the victims within Jewish community institutions and we need to be looking to the future.Many believe they have ticked all their required boxes, but having Child Safety Policies documented is insufficient. As I write, controversy is already swirling on the grounds at one of the Jewish schools regarding the interpretation of their policies and whether children are being placed at risk. The Final Report makes many recommendations and speaks at length about the need to embed quality leadership, governance and culture.
The Jewish community needs to establish a Standing Body working on matters relevant to outcomes of the Royal Commission. This body would focus on both Child Safety in institutions. It would also ensure that the appropriate Redress Elements and Principles outlined in the Redress and Civil Litigation Report become a cross- community standard that all victims know they can rely on.
Leadership will be needed for extensive change in both Jewish institutions and community culture. It is time for a new journey, a difficult journey for all. It’s time for leadership to step up for this most crucial of journeys within our Jewish life.
Whether Zionist, secular, traditional or religious, our Jewish values of menschlichkeit demand we get this right.